Following the trail of Tennessee legislation

Monday, July 16, 2001 at 1:00am

The overpowering din of the mob rang out in the august, marbled hall of the state legislature, echoing off the rotunda ceiling, rising to a frenzy as lawmakers pushed their way into the chamber to decide the fate of the state of Tennessee.

One zealot pounded on a wood door, which sounded like bombs going off. Petite Sen. Rosalind Kurita was escorted through the mob to the ladies room by a female African-American state employee who will not get a decent raise this year because Kurita would not vote for an income tax plan.

Professional lobbyists, usually a pretty jaded lot who hang around playing cards, gossiping and smoking cigarettes during the long tedious hours waiting on the Senate to pass something, stood gaping at the mob.

One grabbed a yellow, Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, "Fair Tax not Food Tax" sticker from my hand, slapped it onto his lapel, gestured at the mob and said, "I've had enough of [choice word]." Other lobbyists soon followed suit.

I have a new and most unlikely hero. He is a man I totally disagree with philosophically and politically. But I have to give him credit for being bold, courageous and willing to change his mind publicly. He is Sen. David Fowler, conservative Republican from Signal Mountain. Not only did Sen. Fowler come around to actually supporting a flat income tax, but he actually worked with Sen. Bob Rochelle to try to craft a compromise bill, which included an advisory referendum. Beneath the din, the compromise fell apart, and we ended up with a scrape-by budget that spends over $500 million in tobacco money and puts the state over $200 million in the red next budget year.

Fowler also had the courage to criticize fellow conservative Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn publicly for calling up talk radio show hosts and inciting the mob, pointing out that they had collectively just killed what they said they wanted, namely a chance to vote on an income tax.

Fowler wanted to wait to have the advisory referendum before an income tax plan was instituted. Rochelle wanted to institute an income tax first and then have a referendum. The latter makes more sense. The best way for the people to decide is for them to first experience an income tax. Not surprisingly, many income tax supporters are people who have lived in other states and have found out that an income tax is no big deal. If the graduated Rochelle/Head or Cole tax plan, which has an $18,000-per-person deduction and takes the sales tax off food, clothing and non-prescription drugs were instituted, over 60 percent of the people would be paying less in taxes. People are not stupid. Once tax reform is passed, most will see that there are benefits

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